Someone once compared ministry to being in a tank of piranhas where nobody wants much of you, but everyone just wants a little piece of your time. That is also a great metaphor for life. Who are the piranhas in your life – kids, parents, boss, teachers, students, the IRS, Facebook friends, customers, clients, telemarketers, the church, charitable organizations, starving children in Somalia, spouse—all of the above? Jesus had the piranha problem often. Mark tells us in the very first chapter of his Gospel that Jesus is going around doing his thing – casting out demons, healing the sick, teaching and preaching, and one morning he needs a break from the demands of his life so much that he goes off before daybreak by himself to pray (Mark 1:35). But his serenity break doesn’t last long. The disciples track him down and try to lay a guilt trip on him. “Everyone is searching for you,” they say. Ever feel that way?
Sometimes we flee from the piranha tank to get away from it all at some popular vacation destination, only to realize when we get there that a million other tourists had the same idea. Modern technology doesn’t help. Being connected to the world 24/7 isn’t how our creator intended for us to be wired. We grow faint and weary from information overload, from legitimate demands on our time, and from too many needs we want to meet and too little energy, time and money to go around.
Jesus “went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” That sentence speaks volumes to me about coping with modern day life stressors. First, finding a deserted place is darn near impossible today. Even at home we have televisions in every room and the omnipresent cell phone, iPod, iPad, or the communication device du jour constantly within easy reach. If you don’t think you’re addicted, ask yourself how you feel when there’s no Wi-Fi close by or no bars on your phone. Or, have you ever realized you’ve left home without your phone and feel naked without it? Secondly, if Jesus needed time alone now and then, why would we ever delude ourselves into thinking that we don’t?
I love the interplay among the lectionary texts for February 5th even though I’m not sure how to resolve the tension between them. In I Corinthians (9:16-23) Paul tells us he has made himself “a slave to all” and has “become all things to all people.” If that doesn’t sound like a sure fire formula for burn out, what does? By contrast when the disciples find Jesus and interrupt his prayer time with a plea for him to meet the needs of the teeming masses, Jesus answers, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do” (Mk. 1:38). Jesus isn’t distracted from his primary mission and purpose by the demands or desires of others. A more dramatic example of that focus occurs in Luke 9:60 where Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (See also Matt. 8:22). Jesus clearly knows what his priorities are and how to say “no,” even to legitimate, heart-rending needs around him. Remember that Jesus is not only the Messiah, but he is also fully-human like us and understands our limitations.
Competing commitments muddy human decision-making waters all the time. If every choice of how to spend our time, money and energy was a no brainer between a good and bad option, no problem, we could all do it. But it’s rarely that easy. I wrote a short story for an English class way back in my undergraduate days at Ohio State. The story was about a father who chose to spend little time with his family, but it wasn’t the common workaholic, materialistic-driven absentee dad version of that tale. My variation on the theme was that this father was so busy donating his time to good causes at his church and in his community that he was hardly ever home when his children were awake and had little energy left over for any quality time with his spouse. My English prof didn’t like the premise of the story. He thought it would be more effective if the option between good and bad life choices was more clearly drawn. 40 years later, I still think choosing between two worthy causes is more common and much harder to do than opting for something that is obviously the more noble of two forks in the road.
Now the “so what” question. What does this all mean for 21st century Christians caught on the treadmill of life that just keeps going faster and faster? Where’s the emergency red button that stops the world so we can get off? And if you think this is a new problem for our over-stimulated generation, Google “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.” That’s the title of a musical and movie made in the early 1960’s about exactly what the title says and what Mark wrote about over 2000 years ago.
Interestingly enough, the problem is even older than that. The Hebrew text (Isaiah 40) for this Sunday, written some 500 years before Jesus’ time, addresses the same problem. “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted (Isa. 40:30). So, let’s not feel special or put upon. This is a human problem that transcends time, age, generations and cultures. God knew from the beginning we were going to have problems with knowing when to take a day off and sets a clear example for us to follow by resting on the 7th day of creation (Gen. 2:2). Honoring ourselves with Sabbath rest is so important it ranks in God’s Top Ten list, right up there with not killing, stealing, committing adultery, etc.
So why is this so hard? We all know we need rest and re-creation time. The problem is actually living it. For far too much of human history we have wasted valuable time and energy arguing among ourselves about which day is the true Sabbath and what constitutes resting, instead of just doing it. Please note that how we recharge our physical and spiritual batteries is different for different people. I am an introvert, and I need quiet solitude to be refreshed and renewed. Extroverts, on the other hand, find a loud party or a rock concert very energizing. Whatever is restful and renewing for you – find time to do it on a regular basis. You’re worth it. God says so and Jesus shows us.
I love the way Isaiah puts it. After that verse about even young people getting exhausted, Isaiah says, “but those who wait for the lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like Eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (40:31). The secret is waiting for the Lord. Waiting is not easy for our instant gratification culture. We will spend good money we don’t have to upgrade from 3G to 4G, whatever that means, to save a few nanoseconds of download time. We don’t wait well. Waiting means surrendering control and none of us want to go there. But I would suggest that we don’t really have a choice. We can either surrender control to Microsoft or the Messiah, to piranhas or peace. Instant gratification lasts an instant or two. Eternal life endures forever.
Finally, like most of life, this is not really an either/or choice, but both/and. The final verse of the text from Mark for this week tells us Jesus didn’t choose A or B. “And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues AND casting out demons” (1:39). How could he do both? First, he knew that proclaiming the Gospel by word and deed is one way of combating the evil demons that threaten humankind. Secondly, Jesus knew how to say “no” to the demands of the world, take time to wait upon the Lord, and renew his strength so he could soar with the eagles. May it be so for you and me as well.